The Visual Essay

The Disquieting Image, Tracing the Visual Essay is an art-based research project, which proposes that new forms of nonlinear narrative can result from analyzing the materials and function of the essay film. Within the framework of theoretical research and artistic practice, this project explores the symbiotic relationship between elements of documentary and fiction inherent to the essay film, and the active participation this relationship provokes on the part of the viewer. Urban gardens as a form of utopia in Berlin are the primary source material for the first video of this project that comprises a written dissertation and video essay series.

If no place is neutral, and elements of history are embedded in and permeate a location, how can one perceive traces of history and make them relevant to contemporary life? The first video of this series looks into the human desire to create identification with a place through nature’s containment in the form of a garden. Urban gardens are intrinsically political spaces owing to questions of land-use, self-sufficiency and cultural identity. There is little distinction between documentary and fiction when recording people in their idealized environment and the key to understanding this ambiguity is not only to look at the material aspects of the garden itself, but also in analyzing the function of the mediums that can represent it- photography, text, video, sound and film quotation. What new narrative forms emerge through studying the formal methods of construction in the visual essay? What new filmic frameworks can be developed when, for example, a sense of time is altered through extended duration of shots, when sound dominates image, when there is no traditional script, through the use of unconventional texts? When experienced through the genre of the visual essay, these combined elements resonate with political aspects that are inherent both to the essay film and to the social phenomenon of the urban garden.

The visual essay is radical in its aesthetic autonomy. It will at one moment engage with the structures and attendant associations of documentary and in the next moment, disconnect and occupy itself with a different mode: fiction, diary, propaganda, surveillance. The visual essay is always in the process of redefining its own parameters. Its aim is to achieve a paradox of such an open form that in the end the viewer will be left with more questions than answers, invariably calling for a re-tracing of the material through repeated viewings. It is a proposal for engagement and a timely form of contemporary criticism because it insists on looking beyond given assumptions in the intertwined realms of history, the arts, politics, culture and the quotidian. Analyzing and creating visual essays is an engaging and vital art-research practice precisely because it seeks out the transient and ephemeral, because it looks for the blind spot in its subjects.